New initiatives are underway to expand reproductive rights and address income inequality, while women continue to push for a bigger piece of the pie when it comes to media. From female-centric pop culture blogs and thought-provoking TV series to stand-up comedy and porn (yes, even porn!), there are plenty of women (and men) out there who are working to create a better world for women on a daily basis. We’ve compiled our very first who’s-who of these amazing thought leaders, and if you’re curious to know what the future of feminism looks like, you’ll want to study our list. Scroll through to meet them all.
Governor Andrew Cuomo
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is one of a select few politicians who are willing to lend more than lip service to the fight for equality. He’s championing a push for legislation that would tackle discrimination against women, addressing key issues like income inequality, housing discrimination, and sexual harassment. Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act follows the 2009 signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act by President Obama, representing another momentous step in the right direction.
When a college professor told Jamia Wilson that she’d have to straighten her hair to be successful as a news anchor, she balked for only a moment before she started kicking ass all over the place. She did her research and found a gross underrepresentation of women and minorities in the media. Wilson then chose not to go into broadcasting, instead dedicating herself to advocacy work that would increase the overall presence of these groups in the media. Her work with the Women’s Media Center focuses on training girls and women who aspire to work in media to confidently participate, to own their opinions and expertise, and to develop themselves as valuable thought leaders. The Center also fights for democracy in the media through its SheSource expert database, which organizes experts on the site for greater accessibility when news outlets are looking for female commentators.
In addition to all that, she was a major force behind the historic 2004 March for Women’s Lives, has previously managed Planned Parenthood’s outreach, and is a committee member at SPARK, an organization that fights the sexualization of girls in the media. Wilson is currently a storyteller over at TED, but her activism work is by no means complete.
Political comic Jamie Kilstein had no idea what he was getting himself into when he first spoke out against rape last year. But when the usual maelstrom of threats and hate mail came his way, he realized maybe he’d found his shtick. Now he’s flexing all kinds of comedic muscle by telling rape jokes at every opportunity. He summed the whole situation up nicely with this quote: “We live in a culture that treats women like either a) f*ck holes or b) accessories who men bring around to tell us how smart and funny we are even when we are being dumb and hacky. When women stray from this model, and either don’t want to f*ck us, or want to voice their own opinions, there is a group of lonely Internet dwellers who lose their f*cking minds.”
According to his belief that comedy “should be used to take down oppressors, not [the] oppressed,” Kilstein is on a mission to generate meaningful public discourse about rape culture, among other social injustices. His work as a radio host with Citizen Radio, an independent station “for young people disillusioned with corporate media and a political system that doesn’t speak to them,” demonstrates this commitment. He and his partner/cohost, Allison Kilkenny, recently announced a book deal, and we couldn’t be more excited.
Laverne Cox is a gorgeous, stylish, powerful, captivating woman (with some of the best gams we’ve ever seen), who’s one of the first award-winning stars to champion trans issues. Cox is leveraging her success with shows like Law & Order, TRANSForm Me, Bored to Death, and Orange is the New Black to bring awareness. She takes on groundbreaking public education campaigns via regular contributions to Huffington Post, speaking engagements, outspoken media coverage, and a website full of resources that discuss the distinction between biological sex and gender expression. She aims to assist struggling trans people in “moving beyond gender expectations to live more authentically,” and to defeat social stigmas surrounding this process.
As cofounder of the Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates originally set out to fund poverty-relief programs that focused on global health initiatives, like immunization campaigns. But as she traveled around the world and got to know the beneficiaries of the Gates Foundations’ programs, she heard a unanimous plea from women everywhere for greater access to family planning. This initially posed a moral dilemma for Gates; she has spoken about how supporting initiatives that could fill that need challenged her Catholic upbringing. In a 2012 article published in the Daily Mail, she said, “It was very hard for me to take a stand on this issue. I spent years wrestling with my feelings.”
But after some consideration, she came forth as an adamant advocate for contraceptive provision, which had been largely removed from American public health and development agendas, likely as a result of some pretty ridiculous political controversy. She has since adopted it as her primary philanthropic cause, adding it as a crucial component of the foundation’s programming. She continues to be perhaps the most valuable champion of needy women seeking greater reproductive control, and consequently, greater economic opportunity. Her most recent program, launched in 2012, raised billions of dollars to provide 120 million women in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia with family-planning options.
Madison Young’s sex-positive erotic films challenge the notion that porn is inherently harmful to women, even going so far as to assert that women can be empowered by choosing to adopt submissive BDSM roles, if that’s what they’re into. Young makes the argument that many women enjoy porn, and should therefore have access to films featuring women who are seeking pleasure in full ownership and expression of their sexuality, rather than simply servicing men. She began as an actress, and now she directs erotic films that are grounded in communication and connection.
Young owns a film company, Madison Bound Productions, and the nonprofit arts organizationFemina Potens, where she curates art that explores and celebrates the identities of women and transgendered people. She’s also an author, a sex educator, and an LGBT activist.
In a recent interview with the Ms. Magazine blog, Samhita Mukhopadhyay noted, “We move in and out of relationships throughout our lives. Most people need to learn to deal with both being in a relationship and being single.” Her new book, Outdated: How Dating is Ruining Your Love Life, is all about the gray area between happily married and miserably single, and how women can be empowered in that space. Mukhopadhyay battles the prescriptive, step-by-step dating process promoted by a “romantic industrial complex” that does not accommodate the individual’s unique identity, preference, or needs. The book is a sort of antidote to pop culture and mainstream self-help books that assume all readers (and daters) are cisgendered, straight, desperate marriage seekers. It encourages women to base evaluations of what they truly want from relationships (versus what society expects of them) on honest introspection. This is perhaps the most relevant, personally impactful issue for third-wave American feminists to address, as our approach to romance and relationships is literally influenced every day by the reigning conventional wisdom. And Mukhopadhyay expertly makes the case for sovereignty from the status quo.
Long before she set fire to the marriage plot, she had our attention as the executive editor of the blog Feministing. She’s also a talented columnist and essayist, with more than a few heavy-hitting publications under her belt, and a highly sought-after speaker.
Earlier this year, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In hit bookstores and young professional women everywhere found their long-awaited guru. The Facebook COO advises ambitious women on career development, detailing the necessarily ferocious approach that helped her become a tech goddess and powerful business exec in the male-dominated world of Silicone Valley. She has inspired women to be aggressive when it comes to the pursuit of their career goals, and more significantly, she has sparked a national conversation about the ongoing challenges facing women in the workplace.
In June, after a 10-year political battle under both the Bush and Obama administrations, the FDA approved over-the-counter access to Plan B One Step for women of all ages. The person behind this massive victory for reproductive rights? Annie Tummino, of the National Women’s Liberation group. At only 26, Tummino was the lead plaintiff in the case.
Zahra Ali is a young French Ph.D. student who is studying emergent Muslim feminism movements in the West and the Middle East. She recently published a book called Feminism and Islam, the effects of which are rippling through France and Iran. The book is a collaborative project, including voices from women all over the Arab world who are fighting for empowerment. Ali has been repeatedly excluded from feminist groups for being Muslim, so she’s pushing feminists everywhere to confront their preconceptions about the incompatibility of Islam and women’s rights. To Ali, this means educating the public about the difference between extremist regimes and the people of the Arab world, and it means creating a conversation about the terms imposed by “colonial feminism,” which in many cases dismiss the religious choices of Muslim women. On the other hand, Ali recognizes that modern Islam must also be influenced by the times, and must therefore evolve to suit the needs of Muslim women. She’s sure to be one of the most important thinkers in redefining the role of the Arab woman, as the Middle East moves through monumental societal changes.
Louis C.K. has described comedy as “a way to visit your worst fears and laugh at them.” So it’s no surprise that he’s Tig Notaro’s biggest advocate. She’s been a female presence in the boys’ club of stand-up comedy for years, but she earned unprecedented cred when she began a 2012 show in Los Angeles with, “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?” Notaro, who at the time of the show was fully convinced that the cancer was going to kill her, underwent successful treatment that included a double mastectomy. She has continued to be vocal about her experiences with cancer and other challenging life events. Her honesty, bravery, and wisdom have earned her the reverence of Conan O’Brien, Sarah Silverman, and pretty much everyone else, as well as an album of the year award. Her revolutionary approach to using comedy as a vehicle for more serious discussion, instead of personal attacks on other people, has been an inspiration to comics across the board.
It makes sense that 13-year-old Rookie readers look up to editor Tavi Gevinson for her success in founding a mega-popular fashion, pop culture, and feminist discussion site for teens. What’s more surprising? That she’s also idolized by progressive-minded women in their 30s — and she’s only 17. Gevinson founded Rookie in 2011 after tremendous success with her blog, The Style Rookie, which she launched when she was 12. Noticing a publishing gap to be filled for smart, savvy teen girls, Gevinson started the digital magazine as an alternative to glossies full of tips about staying skinny or intuiting your crush’s true feelings.
Rookie articles and essays often address serious issues, such as depression, sex, the media and its influence, friend crushes, role models, and gender politics. Columns like “Ask a Grown Person” endearingly allow young readers the opportunity to pose challenging life and love questions to celebrities. Here’s hoping that Gevinson is the leader of an all-new teen pack that is compassionate, socially critical, driven, and creative.
Amanda de Cadenet
British actress and photographer Amanda de Cadenet wrangles up the most interesting, smart, incredible women from Hollywood and beyond for her show The Conversation, which began as a Lifetime TV show and is now a web series. In her interviews, she tries to create honest discussion with successful women about their lives and their opinions on all things related to womanhood, rather than just their latest film projects or personal style. Her bold and intimate questions address issues that all women can relate to, in what de Cadenet calls “the universal language of women.” These include topics such as relationships, kids, money, loss, aging, wellness, sexuality, and breasts. (Yes, there’s a lot about breasts.)
De Cadenet told USA Today that she conceived of the show as a way to “help women navigate their lives” when she was a struggling new mother trying to balance her career and family. You know, kinda like Rookie for grown-ups.
Sarah Sophie Flicker
Sarah Sophie Flicker is perhaps best known for being a style icon, with a signature ethereal look that involves glittering headdresses, sequined ‘20s garb, and jet-black hair — but her mesmerizing elegance is the least of her talents. Flicker is a writer, performer, and director who uses her art — along with her ability to mobilize other celebrities — as powerful tools for activism. She founded The Citizens Band, which she describes as a “political cabaret” that uses music and performances to demonstrate how social problems from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are repeating themselves today. The Citizens Band toured swing states in the last election to encourage people (especially women) to get out the vote.
Flicker has also directed award-winning PSAs like this one, and she is developing a new project called Department of Peace, which “creates conscious-raising campaigns and content, championing important issues and building a platform for the voice of the people.” She’s an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and environmentalism.
Props to football player-turned-academic Jackson Katz: He recognized that the most effective way to stop violence against women is by creating a male culture of peer pressure that discourages sexism. In 1993, Katz founded Mentors in Violence Prevention, which works through high school and university athletic programs to recruit young male leaders to speak up against threatening behavior and predatory attitudes toward women. After experiencing such success with the flagship program, he went on to work with law enforcement, military, and corporations. His videos, books, and lectures have had an immeasurable impact on the next generation of men.
Byron Hurt is a colleague of Jackson Katz at Mentors in Violence Prevention, and you could say that he represents the future of the anti-sexism movement. Hurt’s work, like that of Katz, addresses the problem of the violent male culture in sports, but Hurt is ready to push the envelope further. His most recent documentaries offer a deep critique of black culture’s — and more specifically, hip-hop culture’s — concepts of masculinity and predominant attitudes toward women. MSNBC’s The Grio deemed his award-winning film Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes one of the “Top 10 Most Important African-American Themed Films of the Decade.”
Malala Yousafzai is on the path to becoming one of the greatest human rights activists and peacemakers in history. The real kicker? She’s only 16. Yousafzai has already been a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and has been called the most famous teenager in the world for her activism regarding access to education for girls. The young Pakistani began writing a blog for BBC when she was 11, using a pseudonym to write about her life and to promote girls’ education, which had been banned under Taliban rule. Yousafzai became a public figure when she began giving interviews and allowed the New York Times to make a documentary about her life, but she gained international attention when she suffered a near-fatal gunshot wound to the head in an assassination attempt in October 2012 as she was coming home from school.
Yousafzai relocated to the UK following the incident, but she hasn’t let her traumatic experience stop her from leading the fight for universal education. Quite the opposite — she just opened a library in Birmingham, England, and she’s launching the Malala Fund this fall, which will reportedly invest in education for girls, support educational advocates, and “channel collective action.”
Illustrated by Austin Watts
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